The South Sudanese delegation to Israel wants its countrymen to return home, but is shocked and disturbed by how Israel is carrying out the deportation of the community of 700-1,500 people, an Israeli activist who took part in a meeting with the delegation said Thursday.

Rabbis for Human Rights co-founder Arik Ascherman, who attended a meeting in Jerusalem on Wednesday between the delegation and members of the South Sudanese community in Israel, said the officials from Juba “are on one hand kind of taking this page from the Zionist movement. They very much want everyone back there to help rebuild the country, but they were pretty shocked and disturbed to hear about how [South Sudanese] people were treated – the arrests, the people being given so little time to get their lives in order.”

Ascherman said he heard from officials during the meeting that “we are a country that has such good relations with Israel and these types of things are not helpful in terms of the Israel-South Sudan relationship.”

The activist said the South Sudanese delegation, which arrived in Israel on Wednesday, includes two officials from the foreign ministry, one from South Sudan’s ministry of humanitarian affairs, a deputy police commander, and a diplomat who had previously served as the South Sudanese ambassador to Turkey.

The meeting in which Ascherman took part was shortly before one that the delegation held with representatives from the Foreign Ministry.

On Thursday, they met with representatives of the Interior Ministry, including Interior Minister Eli Yishai, and on Friday, the delegation is scheduled to take part in a town-hall meeting with members of the community in Tel Aviv. Finally, they plan to head south on Saturday to meet with South Sudanese living in Eilat.

Sunday Dieng, a South Sudanese citizen living in Tel Aviv, attended the meeting on Wednesday and spoke of a somewhat different tone. “The officials told us that if the Israeli government doesn’t want you, you should go back,” he said.

Dieng said the officials did not focus much on how the deportations were carried out, saying “they didn’t seem to put much concentration on how people were treated by Israel; they are here to make it clear that the [South Sudanese] government supports returning the people back.”

The Interior Ministry did not return multiple requests for comment on the meeting.

The delegation’s visit comes following the launching on Sunday of “Operation Going Back Home,” during which immigration authorities have arrested around 300 migrants while another 300 have signed papers agreeing to leave willfully.

Nearly all are from South Sudan, according to immigration officials, who have confirmed that at least one charter flight will leave Israel on Sunday to take South Sudanese back to their country.

A foreign ministry official told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that the delegation is in Israel purely on a bureaucratic level and working in cooperation with Israel to oversee the repatriation of South Sudanese citizens.

When asked if the delegation spoke about how the deportations would affect the country’s relations with Israel, the official said that he hadn’t heard anything negative in that regard, but added that Israel has suffered from negative publicity in the world as a result of the images of the arrests, and the violence and inflammatory language surrounding the migrant issue recently.

Galia Sabar, the chair of African Studies section in the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University, said Thursday that the deportations could potentially tarnish Israel’s relations with South Sudan.

Sabar mentioned how, over the years, Israel has invested vast sums of money and expertise in helping to develop South Sudan, and that deportations “will make us no longer the good guys.”

“We have a phenomenal vested interest in South Sudan, a Christian country in the heart of an area of great importance to us,” he said, adding that the deportations and how they’ve been carried out “harm our interests in this part of the world.”

“A person doesn’t go from being an asylum-seeker to a migrant worker over the course of a week,” Sabar added.

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